Infinity: New Research Frontiers

abhiDecember 28, 20183min840
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For experts in the field of ocean mapping, it is no small irony that we know more about the surfaces of the moon and Mars than we do about our planet’s sea floor.

Michael Heller

LONDON —

For experts in the field of ocean mapping, it is no small irony that we know more about the surfaces of the moon and Mars than we do about our planet’s sea floor.

“Can you imagine operating on the land without a map, or doing anything without a map?” asked Larry Mayer, director of the U.S.-based Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, a research body that trains hydrographers and develops tools for mapping.

“We depend on having that knowledge of what’s around us, and the same is true for the ocean,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With their deep craters and mountain ranges, the contours of the earth beneath the waves are both vast and largely unknown.

Seabed 2030

But a huge mapping effort is underway to change that.

The U.N.-backed project, called Seabed 2030, is urging countries and companies to pool data to create a map of the entire ocean floor by 2030. The map will be freely available to all.

“We obviously need a lot of cooperation from different parties, individuals as well as private companies,” said Mao Hasebe, project coordinator at the Nippon Foundation, a Japanese philanthropic organization supporting the initiative. “We think it’s ambitious, but we don’t think it’s impossible,” Hasebe said.

The project, which launched in 2017, is expected to cost about $3 billion. It is a collaboration between the Nippon Foundation and GEBCO, a nonprofit association of experts that is already involved in charting the ocean floor.

The result would be greater knowledge of the oceans’ biodiversity, improved understanding of the climate, advanced warning of impending disasters, and the ability to better protect or exploit deep-sea resources, Hasebe said.

Economic benefits

Exploring Earth’s final frontier will do more than satisfy scientific curiosity, it should bring economic benefits, too.

More than 90 percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a U.N. body, making safe navigation a key motivator for mapping.

“If a ship runs aground it’s a terrible day for the economy, it’s a terrible day for the environment and it’s a bad day for the captain, too,” Mayer said.

Seabed 2030’s map would have other benefits, experts said: In a warming world, it would provide a better idea of sea levels as ice melts and, importantly, warn about impending tsunamis that could devastate coastal communities.